Interim report: Moving Naturalism Forward Meeting

October 27, 2012 • 5:51 am

We’ve had our first day of the Moving Naturalism Forward meeting, and although it was grueling (listening to smart people say things that are sometimes obscure is hard), it was also enlightening.  The two main things I have learned are these:

  • Things—even simple things like the definition of “naturalism”, the subject of our meeting—aren’t as simple as they seem
  • We’re not going to agree on anything.

Sadly, three of our five participants couldn’t make it because of personal or family illness, and they’re all women (Lisa Randall, Hilary Bok, and Patricia Churchland), so the sex ratio has become unbalanced, but not deliberately so.

Sean Carroll, who deserves kudos for setting up the whole thing (as well as Nick Pritzer, who helped fund it), has been a great moderator, keeping things on track but also inserting judicious remarks to clarify matters and adding his own take on the issues, issues which, yesterday, were “what is real?”, “are there emergent properties?”, and “what can we say about complexity?”

I have just a few interim notes; others might disagree on these because they’re based on my personal interpretation of what was said. And they’re just extracts from a very long conversation. I just saw that Massimo Pigliucci (who was live-blogging the meetings for his site Rationally Speaking) has a long summary of yesterday’s activities and you should read his post for a fuller account).

First, it’s strange that, given our task of moving naturalism forward, we can’t agree on what naturalism is. Alex Rosenberg defined it as “all that there is in the universe are bosons and fermions” (others disagreed, saying that “all there is are quantum fields”), while Sean defined it as “the natural world is all there is”.  Sean’s definition comes close to mine except I think that that he excludes the “supernatural” a priori (I think), while I entertain the possibility that what we call “supernatural” might exist, and could in principle be addressed with the tools of science. (ESP, telekinesis, and even God).  As I’ve always said, the distinction between the “natural” and “supernatural” is a tenuous one.

Dan and Richard disagreed on the use of the term “design” in evolution.  Dan says it’s useful, while Richard doesn’t like its supernatural connotations and prefers to use the term “designoid”, indicating the absence of a teleological force behind biological adaptations.  I agree with Richard on this one, though I prefer the simple term “adaptations.” I also worry that using the word “design” in nature, even as biological shorthand, could give unwitting credibility to theists.

Steve Weinberg, who is awesomely eloquent and smart, maintained that “everything is real,” although he used the definition of real in a very expanded way (for instance, he said that “Santa Claus and God are real”).  Alex Rosenberg, the most hard-core reductionist among us, denies that anything is real except fermions and bosons: he even maintained that “meaning is not real” (read his book, The Atheists Guide to Reality, to see why), something I’m pondering at the moment. (BTW, you should read his book; it’s very provocative and though you might disagree, it will make you think).

Some of the most vigorous (and to me, most interesting) discussion was about whether higher-level phenomena are compatible with (or “entailed by”, as Weinberg put it) lower-level phenomena. That is, is everything entailed by the fundamental laws and particles of physics.  Weinberg said “yes,” and I agree with him.  The big opponent of this view was Massimo himself, who claims that emergent properties (he used phase transitions in physics) may be sui generis and not at all entailed by physical laws.

Weinberg went after Massimo, saying in effect that he didn’t understand phase transitions and they are certainly entailed by lower-level physical phenomena. Massimo replied that there is no “knockdown” argument that higher level phenomena are entailed by lower level one.  Weinberg and I made the point that the whole history of physics—which continually shows that higher-level phenomena can be derived from “lower level” ones (i.e. thermodynamics from quantum mechanics) justifies the reductionist program. (By that I mean simply entailment, not that we can predict higher-level phenomena from the behavior of particles or that we shouldn’t analyze phenomena like evolution or human society in terms of particle physics).  Moreover, it has never been shown that a higher-level phenomenon isn’t in principle derivable from lower level ones.

We all agree, however, that “higher-level” phenomena like evolution must often be analyzed on their own terms and that we shouldn’t try to reduce them to particle physics or the like. That much seems obvious.  But at bottom we all (with the exception of Massimo) seem to agree that everything is entailed by the laws of physics.

The discussion of complexity, introduced by Simon DeDeo and much discussed by Janna Levin, was way over my head. I found some consolation in the fact that Dennett, too, announced that he didn’t understand what was being said!

At any rate, see Massimo’s post for a more thorough report.

Today we are talking about morality (introduced by Steven Weinberg), consciousness, and my own pet project, free will, which Owen Flanagan described yesterday as “the black hole of philosophy.”. I am giving a brief Powerpoint presentation of the controversy, emphasizing of course my own stand of incompatibilism (i.e., free will is incompatible with physicalism and the laws of physics). I know I will face strong opposition by Dennett, a formidable arguer, and so I’m a bit nervous.  I’m sure Alex Rosenberg will be on my side, and equally sure that Steve Weinberg (like Dennett, a “compatibilist”) won’t.  I’m equally sure that it will be a lively discussion!

117 thoughts on “Interim report: Moving Naturalism Forward Meeting

  1. Wish I could be there!

    If I may chip in a couple pennies:

    I entertain the possibility that what we call “supernatural” might exist, and could in principle be addressed with the tools of science. (ESP, telekinesis, and even God).

    I would agree with you on this on all but the terminology.

    What you’re labeling “supernatural,” I’d call, “paranormal.” The supernatural, I would argue, is that which is not part of nature…and the only meaningful definition I can come up with for “nature” is that which Sagan used for “Cosmos.” Therefore, anything that’s outside of nature is outside of reality and simply doesn’t exist.

    While the empirical case for ESP, telekinesis, and gods has been slammed shut — especially insofar as all are inextricable from conservational violations — you’re correct to note that, should we find evidence for any such phenomenon (and we hypothetically could), it would mean that said phenomena were natural and we would then need to re-work our understanding of the natural world.

    Not that long ago, an iPhone would have been deepest, darkest black magic and powerful evidence of the “supernatural.” Obviously, in reality, it’s entirely natural — which is why I would have labelled claims of an iPhone as paranormal in times gone by.



    1. This absolutely, and I’ve thought so since at least the mid-90s when participation in forced me to think through the terminology. “Super-natural” is an arbitrary category defined only by enumeration of phenomena conventionally identified as “weird”. If you can reproduce an effect — TK, telepathy, intercessory prayer, hauntings — even half-way reliably, enough to rise above the statistical background noise, then science can characterize it and study its mechanisms, just as surely as it can study molecules and atoms and organisms and stars.

    2. I agree. While I’ve never been given a good reason to believe in the paranormal, I am open to the possibility of it’s existence. Even the existence of a higher power is in the realm of possibility. But till someone can present some evidence, I’ll dismiss it as delusional non-sense.

      1. Evidence is paramount, of course, but there’re also to other very important factors at play.

        First, claims of the paranormal all involve violations of well-established understandings of how things work — especially the law of conservation. The safest bet you could possibly make is that any claim of violation of conservation is bogus. A violation of conservation would radically alter everything we know in profoundly incomprehensible ways. Quite literally, reality as we understand it at every level inescapably depends for its very existence upon conservation.

        Second, many of the proposals, especially of a religious sort, are irreconcilably self-contradictory. All-powerful all-loving gods are incapable of saving innocent children from torturous death, including a great many who died in the recent past whom we can trivially save today. All-knowing gods wish us to share their knowledge so we may join them in their eternal homes, yet they can’t think of a better way to communicate with us than by scraps of copies-of-copies-of-copies of really bad faery tales. Faery tales that have those same gods communicating with us in much more effective ways, I might add.

        So, when somebody comes to you without evidence claiming that something utterly illogical is real, especially when said something would invalidate existence as we know it…well, while it’s true that they might be on to something, it’s overwhelmingly more likely that the word, “to,” in the immediately previous clause is superfluous.



        1. Ben, I’d just like to comment on what you say about inherent contradictions in the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent God:-

          Firstly, I tend to give people from thousands of years ago a little more rational credit, and if something they say, seems as ludicrous as you make it out to be, I’m inclined to wonder if it’s not rather our understanding which is ludicrous.

          I consider this typical modern understanding of terms like omnipotence a historicism at best and counter to common-sense at worst. You’re bringing a modern set theory understanding to an old-fashioned, common-sense idea. I’d argue that omnipotence regarding God was originally meant in the same common-sense way one might refer to a king as omnipotent. When one calls a king omnipotent, one is referring to the king’s authority, domain, etc. If you said to King Xerxes, “So you’re omnipotent, then, are you? So why don’t you show us by flying around the room?” He wouldn’t prove his omnipotence to you by flying around the room, he’d prove it by having your head chopped off. He has the power to do that – to a slave or even his own queen. One would call that the power of life and death – the pinnacle of all the other powers which make up his omnipotence.

          Are you familiar with the story of King Kanute? He tried to demonstrate this distinction to his subjects.
          (More interestingly, Kanute asserts the old precedent-setting Judeo-Christian idea of a separation of powers between God and an earthly king.)

          I’ve made this point here numerous times before. Even a word like “anything”, when used in everyday life, is used to refer to a limited set of appropriate things. When a nurse tells you to just ring the bell if you need anything, do you press it and ask her for world peace?! The ONLY time “ANYTHING” is EVER used in ANY different way to this common-sense way, is when we do set theory (emphasis mine). The same applies to words like omnipotence. Consequently the way you use the words here renders them useless and nonsensical in any other context, i.e. useless nonsensical in any normal, everyday, religious, philosophical or commonsensical context.

          Words like omnipotence should always be understood to refer to a limited set of powers and responsibilities appropriate to the position or situation and this would have to apply to God as much as to a King.

          This is something I find myself saying to my believer friends too. They make nonsense of God by calling him omnipotent in the set-theory sense.

          I think I know what you’re going to say next but I’d like to hear it from you first …

          1. Many theists currently describe their god as omnipotent, sensu it can do anything. Currently. Which I know from having been a theist in their midst (I’m not sure I was ever totally on board). They believe their god is omnipotent, all the while inventing rationalizations for why it doesn’t seem to exert that omnipotence.

            Why should theists from 2000 years ago be any different?

            1. That’s about the only response one needs, but it doesn’t explain why omnipotent gods are so popular in the first place.

              Basically, it’s a case of “my god can beat up your god.”

              “My god brings the rains.”

              “Oh, yeah? Well, my god flooded the whole planet!”

              “That’s nothing. My god has dominion over the life after this one.”

              “Pshaw! My god is all-powerful. He can do everything that your god can, plus everything else that every other god can, plus anything and everything else anybody anywhere might want a god to do.”

              “Hmpf. Well, I must admit — you’ve got me there. How does your god want us to worship him?”

              And, once you’ve decided to worship an all-powerful god, there’s really no going back to a lesser god. Your old god flooded the planet and could do it again…but now you’re going with the god who only brings rains if there’s nothing stopping him? How pathetic.

              Modern theological attempts to limit omnipotence are nothing more than exercises in reducing cognitive dissonance. They’ve realized that the idea itself is not only absurd but that it brings the Problem of Evil crashing down upon their shoulders with full force.

              Those problems, however, are doomed to failure. Not only is it as nonsensical to speak of “the greatest power” as it is to speak of “the largest integer,” it’s equally absurd to speak of “the power that’s greater than any other you might happen to come across but not actually infinite. And, even if you were to grant the existence of such a god, it’s still nothing more than a local warlord who happens to rule the hillside this week.



              1. Yep. the 3rd-grader’s arms race.

                And just to be crystal clear about how inconsistent theists and theologians are, they will maintain that god is omnipotent while trying to explain the ways in which god’s actions are limited. :/

              2. …for example, by claiming that Jesus hates sin so much that he’s coming back Real Soon Now to kick off Armageddon in order to end all sin once and for all…but that it’s perfectly reasonable to excuse him for not bothering to make an anonymous 911 call when he hears the impassioned prayer of some choir boy being raped by his priest.


          2. “Why should theists from 2000 years ago be any different?” Simple: they didn’t know what we know now, didn’t have the resources, lived in a completely different world. Like I said, it’s a historicism to read them the same way you do a modern believer. Example of a historicism: You read how the Israelites took 40 tears to cross the desert so you ask why they didn’t Sinai bus? Your assuming a set theory understanding of omnipotence on the part of a bronze-ager is just like that. And for a modern believer to do it is just as bad. It’s this kind of thing that till leaves me thinking modern atheists are little more than the flip side of the fundamentalist coin. (I’ve read the objections and I’m not yet convinced.)

            One needs to be a bit more systematic and scientific about these things. To correctly understand Moses and Paul, one needs a proper understanding of ancient culture and to try to avoid projecting a modern understanding. There is no way they could have meant omnipotence in a totally unlimited way. A key aspect of ancient Judaism was a growing separation of divine and human power (therefore limitation) and the covenants than came out of that.

            But heck, I’ve had arguments with Christians who bite the bullet when you ask them the old “so can God make a square triangle” question. They are incapable of seeing how it makes nonsense of their idea of omnipotence. But the same goes for you. You’re going to tell me I’m rationalising if I tell you omnipotence can’t encompass logical impossibilities. It seems you’d rather have omnipotence be a convenient absurdity than entertain the possibility that it never meant power over EVERYTHING. Personally, I’m more interested in trying to figure out the historical realities than in satisfying my biases. Sorry if that’s kind of barbed! I’ve gone a bit of a circle, actually – ended up rejecting the simplistic reasons I’ve had for my rejections. It’s all a lot more interesting when you try to remove all your modern preconceptions from these ancient ideas.

            Qualifying omnipotence with separation of powers leaves me with the problem of evil solved, but it doesn’t make me a believer again. It does however leave me with a little more respect for ancients on whose shoulders we stand. We can thank Moses for planting the seeds of constitutionalism and he could not have done so without a limited understanding of omnipotence.

            1. Again, what one particular tribe of Mediterranean pagans believed a couple millennia ago is largely irrelevant to what people believe today.

              My dictionary defines the term thus:

              the quality of having unlimited or very great power

              Yes, some go with the limited form — we’ll get to that in a minute. But some also go for the unlimited form. And it most emphatically is not my fault that the unlimited form is as insanely idiotic as “the largest integer.” Just because somebody thinks that it’s rational to worship the largest integer doesn’t mean that it’s a position any more defensible than geocentricism.

              Now, limited omnipotence. The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it this way:

              The power of God to effect whatever is not intrinsically impossible.

              Interestingly enough, the article that comes from, the article devoted to God’s unlimited powers, devotes almost all of its text to limiting the unlimited.

              But never mind that.

              If it is your position that the fact that God can’t draw, on a flat sheet of paper, a closed figure with three straight sides that each join at right angles — if that fact is not to be taken as evidence that God is not omnipotent, then it cannot be taken as evidence that I am not omnipotent when it turns out that I, too, cannot complete that task.

              God, of course, could trivially stretch the paper over a globe and thus draw the triply-right triangle. But so could I; therefore, God’s power to do this task on a globe is irrelevant to my inability to do the task on a table.

              And, so, you might claim that God (in the form of Jesus) could run a one-minute mile, and I cannot. But so what? It is intrinsically impossible for me to run a three-minute mile; just as the geometry of the flat table won’t let me draw a triply-right triangle, the geometry of my body won’t let me complete that path through four-dimensional spacetime. I could do the three-minute mile on a bicycle, but that’s as irrelevant as drawing the triangle on a globe or Jesus’s super-speed.

              Some at this point will attempt to modify the claim and effectively give God a superset of all of everybody else’s powers…but, once again, that falls flat.

              For I have the power to commit suicide, and no omnipotent being can possibly have that power. For, once the omnipotent being does so, it’s ultimately powerless. How does the term, “omnipotent” even hypothetically apply to a dead god?

              Again, some will claim that suicide would be something evil or against God’s nature, but now we’re getting into silly excuses. God also couldn’t retire his throne and let his son fully and forever take his place. In every kingdom throughout history, doing so has been understood as a right and noble thing in all non-criminal circumstances.

              The list of admirable things that I can do that God can’t is endless. I can be empowered by frustration or loss to overcome my perceived limits, for example; not so with God. If you can’t think of more examples in that vein, you’re deliberately blinding yourself.

              Lastly, God can’t even know if he’s the ultimate power in the universe or if he himself is merely a pawn in an even bigger Matrix-style simulation. This post is already overly long, so I’ll omit that here, except to note that the proof is essentially the same as that commonly used for the Halting Problem. Either Jesus can’t make a perfect simulation for Satan or he himself has no perfect test for simulation; ergo, no such simulation can exist and neither can any guaranteed test for simulation.

              So, sorry. It ain’t my fault that omnipotence is its own self-contained contradiction, no matter how you attempt to slice and / or dice it.

              Just like it’s not my fault that Santa’s not gonna be leaving any teeth on the White House lawn this Easter.


            2. Ben, I have such mixed feelings about what you say here. You express yourself in such a lekker fresh way but I think you’ve grossly missed my point. I really smaak all the other ramifications / absurdities of your “omnipotence” you have worked out but my point is that all the absurdity you see is an indication of a misunderstanding of the notion. So with every absurdity you point out you reinforce my impression that you’re pointing in the wrong direction! i.e. “Omnipotence” cannot refer to what you think it does.

              Imagine you and I and another “wise” friend were travelling together one night through the South African interior and I looked up at a large bright star and said to you we should stop over in Bethlehem. Now would you go on for the next half hour about how absurd that was – Bethlehem, being practically on the other side of the planet, our not having visas for all the war-torn countries in-between, our only having one tank of petrol, and besides we’re not the three wise men, etc. – or would it occur to you that perhaps when I used the word Bethlehem I was not referring to the one in Israel?

              I think the answer is probably yes, but suppose the real reason you went on so long about how absurd it was was because you wanted to paint me as an imbecile to the other passenger. Who would be the one looking stupid when we arrived at a sign saying “Welcome to Bethlehem”?

              And imagine for just a bit longer that the third passenger were a real imbecilic fundamentalist, or perhaps just a child, who did think we could miraculously stop over in the Israeli Bethlehem. Would that somehow have an effect on what I meant by “Bethlehem”?

              PS: I really enjoyed your tangent about achieving a triply-right triangle on a globe. I hadn’t thought of that one!

              1. As I have noted, it’s not my fault that those who espouse incoherent concepts are incoherent, and insisting that “square circle” does too have meaning if just think of it in the right way does not give it meaning.

                Since you did not actually address any of the reasons I gave why “omnipotence,” in all its incarnations, is incoherent bullshit in the finest traditions of bullshitting and instead invented some bizarre straw man parable about a time travel fantasy into an ancient faery tale, I can only conclude that you either have no argument to actually present or that your definition of the term is not one of the many that I demonstrated incoherent.

                Personally, I’m going with the former option. But, if it really is the latter, we can start over, if you’d like, by you offering your own definition of the term — in which case I’d be happy to address it.



              2. Actually I addressed ALL the reasons you gave for the incoherence of your definition by saying I really liked them. You still miss my point. I can’t see another reason why you’d expect me to oppose them.

                I really thought I’d made it abundantly clear by arguing that the absurdity of your, and the fundamentalist, definition points to the likelihood of another, more sensible and historically correct reference for the word. In my first response I also described in a number of ways how a limited, common-sense definition would make both historical and logical sense. I think you really do insist on whacking away at a straw man, albeit one most fundamentalists would defend.

                If you want to start over, rather just re-read my previous posts with a more relaxed state of mind. I’m not trying to defend the popular idea of omnipotence. I thought I’d made that clear. We agree that it is absurd. I’m arguing for a redefinition – one in line with the way an ancient king would have been called omnipotent. I’ll see if I can come up with a way of making my point which has some traction with you.

    3. I disagree. There might be a significant distinction between saying “all that exists is Nature” and “Nature is all that exists” — if one of them is simply intended to be a definition as opposed to a conclusion. By ruling the “supernatural” out by fiat as it were, you do nothing but move terms around and confuse the issue. The supernatural no longer CAN exist: semantics eliminated it. That’s a hollow and meaningless victory.

      This is like re-defining “God” to mean “Nature” or “Reality” and then saying that everybody believes in God! There can be no atheists anymore. Big whoop. It’s word play because all we do then is shift down to arguing over what God is like. The argument that Nature is defined as “all there is” is simply shifting the debate over to the question of what Nature is like. And we threw away the familiar terms in order to adopt less familiar ones.

      The paranormal is a form of the supernatural. It’s a mind-first phenomenon. Naturalism is the view that “no causes of events in the natural world are irreducibly mental.” Supernaturalism is the view that at least one mental thing cannot be ultimately reduced to a non-mental thing. Defining it this way allows us to distinguish between two distinct fundamental structures of reality: bottom-up cranes (naturalism) vs. top-down skyhooks (supernaturalism.)

      1. The problem isn’t with how Ben and other like-minded folks (me included) want to define “supernatural.”

        The problem is with how believers want to define it. Even if a “supernatural” (under the current, common understanding of the term) phenomenon is observable, repeatable, scientifically tractable (learning under what conditions it is likely to occur, etc), people would still want to call it “supernatural.”

        If the phenomenon is all those things, it seems to me we have to call it natural. It’s there. It’s real. There is a mechanism by which it works/appears.

        What is meant by the common understanding of “supernatural” is “stuff that can’t happen or exist according to our most solid, bedrock understanding of physics etc.”

        In other words, the supernatural is that which doesn’t exist.

        1. If the “mechanism by which it works” is not reducible to matter and energy, then it’s supernatural.

          True, the supernatural can’t happen or exist according to our current most solid, bedrock understanding of physics. But science is all about adapting and changing models to fit circumstances. We’d have to invent a whole new category of physics in which “mind power,” “vitalism,” or “spirit” works. This new area of “physics” would focus not on material connections, but on ones which are irreducibly mental or have to do with meaning.

          Magical correspondences, say, would be incorporated into science — IF they were observable, repeatable, tractable, etc. Since they aren’t … they aren’t.

          1. The provisionalism of science works rather in favor of Ben’s notion.

            Forces or mechanisms we may discover in the future shouldn’t be excluded from the natural world just because we don’t know about them yet.

            This was the point of his iPhone example.

            1. If discovered, supernatural forces (which are not reducible to mindless material mechanisms) would not be excluded from REALITY.

              The iPhone example works rather in favor of my notion. IF iPhones actually worked through ESP, incantations, and telepathy, then people who thought they were “deepest, darkest black magic and powerful evidence of the ‘supernatural’ would have been RIGHT.

              It just makes more sense to say that the “supernatural” doesn’t exist because that’s what we discovered through science. It’s not real. Saying it doesn’t exist because the word is meaningless just avoids that uncomfortable fact and thus plays into the hands of believers.

              1. musical beef wrote:

                So the crux of our disagreement is that I think of “the natural world” and “reality” as synonymous, while you do not?

                But we are both Naturalists, and believe only the natural is real.

                My way, science has (provisionally) knocked out the supernatural hypothesis.

                Your way, philosophy and semantics have knocked out the term “supernatural.” Any testing is then done on individual claims which, when falsified, can now take refuge in using philosophy and semantics to drag “supernatural” back in and claim immunity from science.

              2. Any testing is then done on individual claims which, when falsified, can now take refuge in using philosophy and semantics to drag “supernatural” back in and claim immunity from science.


                When “supernatural” is understood as a perfect synonym for “imaginary,” “not real,” “fantasy,” or “the stuff of faery tales,” supernaturalists are more than welcome to claim that their dreams are supernatural and that’s why nobody else can actually observe what they’re talking about.

                Indeed, that’s exactly how this sort of thing should work.



              3. The supernatural is imaginary unreal fantasy fairy tales. No argument from me on that.

                But if we define it that way up front, we can’t call that first sentence a justified conclusion. We can’t use science and reason. Instead, it looks like we rule it out by fiat — and advocates will with justification will call that unfair.

                Imagine someone who insists that “Dark Energy” is not real, because “Dark Energy” is defined as “imaginary nonsense.” Then, in response to all the evidence for dark energy from physicists, this person replies that if this is true then what they’re talking about is NOT Dark Energy, it’s just some different kind of energy, that’s all. Dark Energy is nonsense.

                Gee, guess there’s something scary about the word “dark.” Or there’s someone who wants to shut up people who advocate theories regarding dark energy and get people to agree that dark energy is nonsense. Or both.

                Such a move would either be pointless, or sneaky.

              4. But if we define it that way up front

                But we’re not the ones defining it that way.

                Super: above, beyond, etc.

                Natural: either not human, or a synonym for “Cosmos.”

                If you can offer a better definition for “natural,” have at it. But I’m at an utter loss as to think of a useful definition of “nature” as anything other than “reality.” That that should mean that “beyond reality” of necessity equates to “not real” isn’t my fault.

                And I’m still at a loss as to why you would be so upset that a word used to describe that which you yourself are convinced is universally applied to that which doesn’t exist does, in fact, most obviously mean, “non-existent.”

                We have plenty of terms that also mean that something isn’t real: imaginary, fanciful, hypothetical, non-existent, fantastic, fictional, impossible, unreal — and that’s all without consulting my thesaurus. Why shouldn’t “supernatural” be yet another one of those synonyms?

                I’ll answer why: because it’s popular to insist that the word be applied to a special class of fiction that its fans similarly insist is real, despite all evidence and reason to the contrary.

                Your problem here isn’t philosophical or even lexicographical. It’s political.


              5. We’re snaky here, too. So I’ll be brief:

                You’re wrong.

                Just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean the term means “imaginary.” It’s a failed hypothesis. It IS imaginary.

                Philosophical, semantic — and political.

              6. Just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean the term means “imaginary.”

                Then you’re using a different dictionary from the one I am, which says that “imaginary” means, “existing only in the imagination.”

                If we’re agreed that that which is supernatural doesn’t exist in reality, then it can only exist in the imagination and thus, by dictionary definition, is imaginary.


          1. I am more in agreement with Sastra’s take on this. Mainly because I think an important point to make is that whatever a person may mean by the word “supernatural”, if the phenomenon actually occurs, if it leaves any trace that a person can detect in any way, then the methods of science can in principle, be used to study the phenomenon and generate useful information about it. If the universe actually did function just like christians, druids, paranormalists, or what have you claimed, the methods of science would still be capable of figuring out how it worked and make predictions about it.

            I do agree, however, that the term supernatural is an oxymoron.

            1. It seems to me that what you’ve written us closer to my take.

              If something happens, then it’s real. It’s part of the natural world. Which leaves only the impossible in the supernatural category.

              It’s kind of like the story Dan Dennett tells about magic: people think of “real” magic as the magic that can’t possibly be real; while “fake” magic is the “magic” magicians can really do.

              1. I do certainly agree that if something happens then it is real. But I think it is useful, in a tactical sense, to let the supernaturalist categorize phenomena anyway they want, and show that it doesn’t make any difference. I think it is effective to show them that they can’t hide anything in the “supernatural,” whatever they think it might be.

                Supernatural is a nonsense term, sure. But why stop there? Pile on!

                “The word supernatural is an oxymoron, but even if it were as you say, you still can’t hide it from the methods of scientific inquiry.”

                The reasoning behind each point leads to pretty much the same conclusion, but from somewhat different directions. They both boil down to “anything that happens is real, therefore science can usefully interrogate it.” You prefer arguing about what the words real, natural and supernatural should/do mean. The other way is to argue that “whatever you want to call it, if it is in any way discernible to you, then science can usefully interrogate it.” Not much different to you or I, but this allows the other person to keep their definitions. I prefer to keep both arguments handy.

          2. Not at all. What you call “supernatural” I call “magic” – something that works against the energy principle. It is physically inconsistent but not logically so.

            For example, telekinesis is what fields do, interacting with objects over a distance. Obviously it is logically possible, because it exists. =D

            It is _human_ telekinesis that is impossible, for energy reasons.

      2. Naturalism is the view that “no causes of events in the natural world are irreducibly mental.”

        That’s not a definition I’ve ever encountered before. I don’t think it reflects common usage, and I don’t think that it’s a very useful one.

        Most importantly, there’s the problem that it prevents much that would be clearly supernatural from being classified as such. Magic wands, potions, lucky charms, totems, and all those sorts of things (generally) have no mental properties associated with them, and yet contain supernatural powers.

        What defines the supernatural in general is that you get more out of it than you put into it — a violation of conservation, in other words. Speak some words of power and crazy shit happens. Wave around a magic wand and all hell breaks loose. Jesus feeds the masses with a loaf and a fish. Squint really hard at that glass and it’ll fly across the room if your ESP is strong enough.

        Conservation isn’t merely our best-established natural law, it’s also the one that we’ve known about the longest and is most universally understood. It’s also the one that people most love to pretend to be able to break.

        And, as such, it’s a very handy tool to separate the real from the unreal.

        As with gods, I’d note that the supernatural isn’t a subject for scientific inquiry; it’s one for literary and / or psychological inquiry.



        1. To be fair your definition of supernatural as “a violation of conservation, in other words”, is not in common usage either. Though it is definitely a valid criticism of supernatural claims.

          But, what if the mental effort of the telekinetic, or the action of the wand, or whatever is used to initiate the magic, is merely a trigger and the energy comes from someplace else? I am not attempting to argue in favor of the supernatural or paranormal, but I can certainly dream up ways that magic could work without violating conservation laws. I would however have to posit other things that we have no reason to suppose actually exist.

          1. I don’t think I’d take conservational violation as a definition of the supernatural, but rather as an observed consequential truism.

            I’d rather define the supernatural as that which encompasses something other than the natural.

            Now, we obviously need to define, “natural.” For that, there’re really only two definitions that are coherent. The first is the old one of everything not the result of human action. That’s obviously irrelevant (as well as problematic unto itself). The other would be as a synonym for Sagan’s Cosmos: all that ever is was, or will be.

            Obviously, everything that isn’t part of the Cosmos simply isn’t. And if the natural is that which is part of the Cosmos, then the supernatural is that which doesn’t exist.

            Somebody else observed in this thread that it’s not the fault of rationalists that the logical consequence of the positions taken by supernaturalists lead to self-contradiction and that what they hold dear gets defined out of existence as a consequence. Indeed, it’s exactly what one would expect should the naturalist’s position to be the correct one.



        2. I think Sastra’s definition of supernatural does a very good job of describing the most common usage of the word.

          1. Erm…as I observed in the post you’re replying to, it doesn’t. Sastra’s definition depends on minds, and yet magic wands, potions, totems, and lots of other things commonly understood as supernatural clearly lack minds.


            1. If you’ve read Harry Potter then you know that wands in that universe do indeed have minds.

              Totems likewise are explicitly spiritual, and their physical representations are meant to invoke those spirits.

            2. As Gregory Kusnick points out, totems of course have minds.

              Regarding Wands of Fireballs and Potions of Healing, those are less “supernatural” and more “fantastical,” or “literary devices,” or “game mechanics.” They aren’t what’s meant when most people say “supernatural” in contexts outside of role playing games or fantasy literature.

              1. Oh, I don’t mean that Sastra and Greg don’t make excellent cases for why those things DO have mental properties, but I do kind of think they take your objections more seriously than they deserve.

              2. You actually make my point for me.

                The only difference between what you label “fantastic literary devices” and what others label “supernatural”…is the particular book in which they’re described.

                The Bible opens with a story about a garden which has a tree whose fruit gives one knowledge. How is that not supernatural, and how is it not a fantastical literary device?

                Similarly, the Bible features a talking plant that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero. Pure fantasy, pure literature, purely supernatural.

                ESP? Santa knows when you’re sleeping, when you’re awake, and if you’ve been bad or good.

                The only difference between a Christian prayer and a magic spell is the pantheon whose members are being compelled.

                I could go on, but I hope you get the point….



              3. Oh, there’s another difference, actually: we have a shallow conception of how those fantastical literary devices work because they were only conceived to perform a specific role in a novel or a game.

                They aren’t usually meant to be commentaries on how real people think about supernatural phenomena, so you can’t infer a meaning of “supernatural” from them. And when they are, actually, the authors usually do end up working with something along the lines of Sastra’s definition.

        3. Magic wands, potions, lucky charms, totems, and all those sorts of things (generally) have no mental properties associated with them, and yet contain supernatural powers.

          Yes they do. “Mental properties” involve intentions, emotions, values, goals, meanings, sympathies, antipathies, qualities, morals, and other mindlike or mind-dependent characteristics. While magical forces themselves may be considered impersonal, they are obviously deeply grounded in anthropocentric assumptions about the nature of reality. They have mental properties.

          This definition is one Richard Carrier supports, and there are (and have been) other advocates. I like it because it gets to the heart of what really unites all proposed supernatural phenomenon.

          Think about it. If scientists discovered a violation of conservation of energy (in QM or some other cutting-edge area of physics) it would only be considered supernatural if … what? Add in an irreducible mental property. A skyhook.

          <blockquote<“ Let us understand that a skyhook is a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design, and apparent design, is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless mechanicity. A crane, in contrast, is a subprocess or feature of a design process that can be demonstrated to permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection, and that can be demonstrated to be itself the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product of the basic process.” (Dennet, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea pg. 76)

          1. Eh, sorry. Still not seeing it.

            Sure, you need a mind to use a magic wand. But you also need a mind to use a floor mop. The wand is supernatural; the mop, not. Both are impersonal tools. Indeed, as Mickey Mouse showed us, both can be used to clean your floors…but the wise wizard sticks with the mortal mop, thankyouverymuch.

            There’s another problem you face. By privileging the mind as that which distinguishes the (impossible) natural from the (impossible) supernatural, it’s but a short hop skip and jump to concluding that it’s the mind itself that is supernatural, and that anything with a mind — including, but of course, human minds — must therefore be supernatural (ergo Jesus). That’s not a leap I think you’d make or want people to make, but it’s not a very difficult one to make. If I were a Christian apologist, I’d already have made it for you in a very convincing fashion.

            And, as to your hypothetical of a credible observation of a violation of conservation…I don’t see what difference a mind makes. If we’re in a Matrix-style computer simulation, it’d be (logically, if not practically) trivial for the programmers to violate conservation. That would obviously be the actions of an intelligent mind, and obviously not fit the commonly-accepted definition of “supernatural.” It’s not at all hard to come up with other examples.

            Similarly, each and every example you care to come up with of the supernatural, even the mindful supernatural, if it were to be reliably observed, would suddenly be considered natural and an intense subject of study by naturalistic scientists. If somebody were to open a newly-discovered Egyptian tomb and discovered a stick that made things levitate when you waved it in a certain way whilst chanting a certain phrase, I assure you that the conclusion would not be, “Magic!” Instead, the rush would be on to understand the physics at work — and chances are excellent that it would spur rapid technological advancements that would spread rapidly throughout the population.

            Even if the wand “merely” focussed some hitherto-unrealized power of the mind to tap into a mystery force, or however you want to sell the story to the Hollywood producers.



            1. The wand is supernatural; the mop, not. Both are impersonal tools.

              I think you’re missing my point. The wand is supernatural because it responds to you like a person would. It feels or senses your intention, connects with you, manipulates hidden occult forces which unite objects at the level of their meaning.

              There’s another problem you face. By privileging the mind as that which distinguishes the (impossible) natural from the (impossible) supernatural, it’s but a short hop skip and jump to concluding that it’s the mind itself that is supernatural, and that anything with a mind — — including, but of course, human minds — must therefore be supernatural

              Hey, that’s not a bug; that’s a feature 😉

              Why? Because when you get right down to it, that’s exactly what people who believe in the supernatural DO believe. Minds are magic. Mind/body substance duality. The ghost in the machine. It moves our fingers through the psychokenetic power of the Wish. The physical neural chain of cause and effect is hidden to us — when we’re simply going with sloppy intuition and what things “feel” like.

              This view of the mind is wrong. But the feeling that it’s “right” is one of the primary sources for belief in the supernatural. The Matrix is analogous to a Spiritual Realm: what makes it different is that the computer reduces to mindless digital molecules. The “spiritual” is pure mind.

              Examples of supernatural phenomenon: disembodied souls, ghosts, ESP, psychokenesis, magical correspondences, vitalism, karma, prana, God, cosmic consciousness, mind as “energy force,” a universal tendency towards the harmonic balance of Good and Evil, progressive evolution towards Higher States, mind/body substance dualism, holistic nonmaterialistic monism.

              We’re both in agreement that scientists could, in theory, study “magic.” If they can reduce it to mindless matter and energy, then I’ll agree it’s not magic. But if that proves virtually impossible to do, then science is studying magic. And reality turns out to be different than what we think it is (and turns out to be like what the woo-sters think it is.)

              Remember, we shouldn’t put ourselves into a position where nothing — no discovery, no finding, no event, no evidence, no highly confirmed scientific body of testing — could ever show that we are wrong.

            2. The wand is supernatural because it responds to you like a person would.

              Let’s try a thought experiment.

              We have two sticks: Aaron’s Rod and Harry’s Wang.

              Both are nominally identical in every way, including that waving them in a certain manner while chanting certain words causes items to levitate with no observable expenditure of energy or other action or effect of any identifiable force.

              …except for one way. We know for a fact (never mind how) that Aaron’s Rod has no consciousness and that Harry’s Wang is conscious.

              And, of course, let’s assume that everything is well-verified, that Randi has confirmed to his satisfaction that no hanky-panky is going on, that Randi himself isn’t engaging in hanky-panky, and all the rest.

              Is either stick supernatural? If the one but not the other, why?

              Let’s add a third stick into the mix: Data’s Dowel. Again, it’s identical to the other two, but we know that it’s using a standard voice recognition algorithm and other forms of AI running on standard integrated circuits to achieve the exact same level of consciousness as Harry’s Wang.

              Is Data’s Dowel any more or less supernatural than the other two?


              1. Are the sticks both “special,” in that they both have an intrinsic property of responding to intention and manipulating matter and energy by exerting an irreducible nonmaterial force (or allowing such a force to be manipulated)? If so, then I’d probably say that both sticks are supernatural (or closely associated with the supernatural), with the conscious one being more like a fairy and the non-conscious one being more like a magical channel for some kind of mental energy. If not — and any old stick will work as well — then the wands themselves aren’t magic.

                Data’s Dowel is not supernatural, because it’s reducible to non-mental components. It’s not clear if it’s still accessing a supernatural reality, but if so it’s just a machine for accessing the ‘forces,’ and not supernatural itself.

                Consider the distinction between mind/brain substance duality and mind/brain dependence. One of them is woo, and the other is not. And they operate on completely different views of what reality is like.

                I suspect your ‘wand’ analogy has some problems, because someone who believed in the supernatural could say a wand isn’t supernatural. Or magic. But then, they wouldn’t say the wand “makes” things levitate. The wizard does that.

              2. Are the sticks both “special,” in that they both have an intrinsic property of responding to intention and manipulating matter and energy by exerting an irreducible nonmaterial force (or allowing such a force to be manipulated)?

                See, It’s the part that I emphasized that I consider being the delineation between the natural and the supernatural.

                My iPhone is capable of responding to intention and it can manipulate matter and energy, but it does it all by using the electrochemical energy stored in its battery to perform various acts of communication and computation.

                If it did so without using any of the energy in its battery (or energy supplied through the dock connector, etc.), then that would mean that it’s doing work without consuming energy — a clear violation of conservation.

                Now, there are two ways this can go. Either it really is happening, in which case my mind is blown and my understanding of what is and isn’t natural is significantly expanded, or it’s just a thought experiment and it’s not really happening — and thus it’s supernatural.

                Data’s Dowel is not supernatural, because it’s reducible to non-mental components.

                Okay, then. Here’s an outright challenge for you, because it’s really starting to sound like you’re suggesting that there’s something special going on in minds — aka, dualism.

                Is human (or other) cognition a “mere” matter of computation taking place in the biochemical computer of the nervous system? If one were to create a computer simulation of a brain to whatever level of detail is necessary (even down to the atomic or sub-atomic level), would there be any difference between what that computer simulation did and what a “real” human being did?


              3. We’re getting snaky.

                Your challenge: no, no difference. There is nothing special going on in minds.

                I am not a dualist. I’m saying that dualism is supernatural.

              4. We’re getting snaky.

                You mean I’m having trouble with my blockquoting again? Yeah, sorry ’bout that….

                I am not a dualist. I’m saying that dualism is supernatural.

                But dualism is merely one example of a violation of the laws of nature — in this particular case, as in so many, it ultimately comes down to conservation. There can be no cognition without communication, and Claude Shannon very clearly established that there can be no communication without energy. (And, incidentally, conversely, you can communicate using any exchange of energy.)

                What I don’t get is why you’re privileging dualism such that it is dualism, the whole dualism, and nothing but dualism that should constitute the alpha and omega of the supernatural. There’re plenty of other examples of violation of natural laws (which, incidentally, all ultimately come down to a violation of conservation, best I can tell) which are equally popular examples of supernaturalism that don’t involve any minds at work.

                You didn’t like my example of the magic wands, which I’d argue has more to do with you inventing a particular storyline for the wands than the one I gave to you — but never mind wands. How ’bout magic potions? I’m not aware of any literary tradition in which the potion has any mind to it, and yet all the examples you’re likely to come across would clearly be supernatural (and, incidentally, also violate our understanding of the laws of chemistry and probably, ultimately, conservation).

                Again, if it weren’t for the political climate you happen to find yourself in, I really don’t think that you’d be giving such overwhelming emphasis to dualism as opposed to other examples of the literarily entertaining yet literally impossible.



            3. To create a magic wand (according to D&D 3.5 edition rules) requires that the enchanter spend experience points. There is no experience cost for constructing a mop.

              Ben, you are taking magic wands way too seriously, and don’t understand them as well as you think, anyway.

  2. Nice to see Massimo getting ganged up on.

    It always seems to me that it’s folks still fighting a rear guard action for the specialness of being human that embrace some form of compatablism. It also alows them to claim virtue, if only to themselves.

    I prefer the bracing and liberating humility of Rosenberg’s view.

  3. The “quantum fields” guy is Sean, right?

    The only difference I can tell between “all there is are quantum fields” and “all there is are fermions and bosons” is that the former more explicity accomodates the many worlds interpretation. Rosenberg seems not to accept many worlds insofar as he indicates in his “Guide” book a a view that fundamental reality has a randam aspect to it, whereas many worlds is purely deterministic.

    1. And what of spacetime itself?

      I’m not quantum mechanic, but I’m pretty sure that spacetime is neither a quantum field nor composed of fermions or bosons.

      I also understand that there’s still plenty of room for dark energy to be something not part of the Standard Model…and then there’s the whole matter of quantum gravity….

      In short, I think it just a wee bit premature to privilege Quantum Mechanics as a sufficient and complete Theory of Everything. Yes, it’ll always be profoundly useful, and, yes, anything that replaces it would have to incorporate it the same way Relativity incorporates Newtonian mechanics.

      But we know there’re serious problems with Quantum Mechanics that nobody’s yet been able to solve, and we have no idea yet what the solutions to those problems will be. My own money would be on something as relatively bizarrely unintuitive to QM and GR as QM and GR are to classical Newtonian mechanics — that does seem to be the pattern, after all.



      1. I wouldn’t be so sure [that spacetime isn’t merely fermions and bosons]. A likely possibility to me (also not a quantum mechanic by trade) is that spacetime itself may be an emergent property of particulate stuff (more specifically, the tendency of particles to relate to each other in more probable ways creates “time’s arrow” in the macroscopic – which unfortunately, all our experimental apparatuses are stuck in). I despair of any way forward with a “theory of everything” if this is remotely true, though smarter and harder-working people (than I) seem to be bashing on a possibility like this.

        What seems really daft is Pigliucci’s suggestion that emergent thingies don’t necessarily emerge from fundamental thingies. If they don’t, then what special sauce are emergent properties emerging from? Just what perpetual motion machine does he propose provides emergent *anything* ? He faults Weinberg for having “only” a historical argument for the dependence of all upper level stuff on fundamental processes — at least at that meeting. Seems to me philosophers enjoy conjuring up impossibilities if what works incredibly well (standard model) is not perfect. It’s not perfect, therefore, pixie dust could exist. Betcha hadn’t thought of that, huh? huh?

        1. “He faults Weinberg for having “only” a historical argument for the dependence of all upper level stuff on fundamental processes — at least at that meeting.”

          ??? Isn’t that the same, particularly in this context, as saying he faults Weinberg for basing his position on a rather large amount of evidence?

          1. I think so. As in, all the evidence there is. As in, there ain’t no scrap of countervailing evidence to the otherwise, nohow. So it’s natural to assume emergence from something other than something’s parts. Someones got to do it. Can’t leave any stones unturned, even non-existent ones.

      2. – Spacetime is emergent, if you ask string physicists like Carroll.

        – Dark matter, say, _can’_t be part of the Standard Model. The Higgs field works on Standard Model particles, so not on dark matter. If dark matter is the supersymmetric sector, I assume a supersymmetric Higgs field would give it mass. (On dark energy, I say: “no comments”. =D)

        – If QM has serious problems, I’m not aware of them. It isn’t inconsistent, and it predicts all we see.

        The current problem is that it isn’t predictive enough to test all of it. Decoherence and its testing seems to describe the act of observation fully, but we can still entertain variants such as choosing between standard QM and Many Worlds or QM instrumentalism.

        You may mean that GR is an effective theory, so it breaks down at higher energy and its quantization with it. Hence people insists, erroneously, that “GR and QM can’t be reconciled”. Well, duh, in that sense it can’t. Wait for a more general theory of gravity.

        – “Quantum gravity” is a term looking for a reality. A more generic theory of gravity may be seen as a “quantum gravity” theory since it presumably won’t break as easily.

        1. If QM has serious problems, I’m not aware of them. It isn’t inconsistent, and it predicts all we see.

          But it’s not PERFECT. (nannie, nyah-nya na-nerrr.) So how can you say that it predicts ALL we can see? My philosophy runs rings around your puny physics, and I think some humility on your part is warranted now, and you should enroll in some Philosophy courses because you do not have enough to do.

          (that’s how incoherent Pigliucci’s viewpoint appears to me, in light of the success of QM.)

          “Quantum gravity” is a term looking for a reality.

          Yup. As is “Loop quantum gravity”, “string theory”, or Penrose’s tensor stuff? I guess I was thinking of the search for any fully background-independent model of gravity/spacetime when I said “quantum gravity”. 🙂

          I’m still a holdout on dark matter, though. I wonder if we’re being fooled into thinking it must exist because of our lack of understanding of how spacetime/gravity really works on the largest of scales (e.g., the scale of a galaxy, when viewed from another galaxy, say). (hey, a wiki entry, I guess I’ll read that. I guess folks have been poking around there, too.)

        2. Wait for a more general theory of gravity.

          That’s what I meant by the “serious problems” line. We still don’t really know what gravity is or how it works (though we can model it superbly well), and neither QM nor GR has the answers. And gravity is, arguably, the single most important force in the universe.

          Until we can explain gravity in a way that fits into what we understand at both the quantum and relativistic scales, I think it premature to say that either theory is complete, and presumptuous in the extreme to (as some in Cambridge are doing) claim that some aspect of either theory is “all there is.”

          Of course, you know me well enough to know that I’m not opening the door to thoroughly-discredited theories such as theism in one of its various guises. Whatever comes next will have to build on QM and GR, the same way both build on Newtonian Mechanics, the same way Newton built on the works of the Greek geometers and so on.


      3. If one wants to “look at the bedrock level”, then one does have to adopt a view in the philosophy of space and time. Relationalist views (e.g. that of Einstein) would hold that once you remove the particles and fields (matter in the broad sense, IOW) spacetime itself would disappear. If you’re substantivist (Newton, as conventionally understood) you hold space to be a sort of “container” which would exist even if there was no matter. In my view the first is the correct one, but that’s contentious.

  4. Fascinating. In the never-ending quest to answer, “What is?” the farther we progress the more interesting the differences. Naturalism–which I read a understanding all of ‘ultimate reality’ we can–may not defy everyone, but I know it escapes me, and believe it is beyond every human.

    The question in my mind is the extent to which the ultimate is discontinuous, only non-linear, but unmeasurable and unpredictable.

    Still, the quest for better understanding seems to be our human blessing and… burden… 😉

  5. I question the usefulness of a discussion on complexity in a forum where even highly educated people such as Dennet and Coyne are confused by it. Even in the comment section of this blog, sometimes the commentary will start drifting into a style of language that seems more suited to making it’s content obscure than towards communicating an idea in a manner that most can understand. I understand that often as you get into discussions involving highly technical subject matter the vocabulary starts to become more difficult to understand for those not involved in that field. But what I’m talking about is the style of prose that almost seeks to make it’s audience strain to grasp it’s meaning. I often find it the case in discussions on philosophical subjects.
    Maybe I’m simply not educated enough or well read enough to take part in such discussions, but it seems to me that they miss their aim if they are trying to inform as well as argue their point.

    1. “I question the usefulness of a discussion on complexity in a forum where even highly educated people such as Dennet and Coyne are confused by it.”

      Two things.

      1) That is how people make progress, by stretching themselves.

      2) DD and JC may be confused by it, and probably some others as well. But it is very likely that at least some of the people there are well capable of discussing that topic.

  6. Dan and Richard disagreed on the use of the term “design” in evolution.

    Dan says it’s useful, while Richard doesn’t like its supernatural connotations and prefers to use the term “designoid”, indicating the absence of a teleological force behind biological adaptations.

    This is an excellent point.

    IMO, evolution is a designer though obviously not a sentient intentional one. We are designed by evolution (E = RM + NS) to optimize our survival and transmission of our genotype.

    But I can see how the terminology runs into semantics, common language issues. To many people, design is something people do.

    There should be a way to describe it but designoid doesn’t look like it will catch on. It will go the way of “Brights”.

    Non-teleological design would work but most people aren’t going to know what teleological means and this matters if you are trying to explain ideas to the less than hyper-educated.

    1. It seems to me that the general rule in dealing with the general public is that if something CAN be interpreted as supporting the supernatural it WILL be interpreted as supporting the supernatural.

      I think that’s why well-meaning attempts to “take back” or naturalize terms like “design” or “spirituality” are doomed to fail. People will nod along happily, agree to accept the new understanding — and then go right back to using the words to be as woo-ful as they were before. Scientists are connecting to religion! They just said so, I heard them. They said “design.” They said “spirituality.” They said “God.”

      It is the job of those scientists and philosophers who deal with the public to make this harder for them to do.

      1. Agreed.

        I’m not a fan of Harris’ campaign to reclaim “spirituality”.

        The point you make here is a large part of why I don’t like the word “supernatural”. I think it would be good to try to show people that this label and the sorts of things allegedly contained in the category just don’t make any sense. When it comes to the supernatural, I think supernaturalists are trying to have it both ways: they want it to be real, just not real like gravity is real. They want it to be a kind of real that isn’t real.

        I say show them the incoherence and drop the term.

  7. I think MP might be referring to this perspective (not sure, he is just too too too for me to be sure of what he is saying):

    “In our search for foundations, we have gone round in a circle, from the mind, via various components of matter, back to the mind – or, in the case of the Copenhagen interpretation, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, and then back to the macroscopic. But this just means that nothing is fundamental, in the same way there is no first or last stop on London Underground’s Circle Line. The moral to draw from the reductionist scenario seems to be that either what is fundamental is not material, or that nothing at all is fundamental.”

    Excerpted from:

    1. Except that this is provably wrong. One can show, as has been explicitly done since 1967 at the latest, that one can formulate quantum mechanics without “minds” or other things which (say) on an evolutionary or emergentist perspectiv only should arrive “later”.

  8. Apologies if this question has already been answered, but are any parts of these discussions being taped? If so, will we be able to see them?

  9. Massimo replied that there is no “knockdown” argument that higher level phenomena are entailed by lower level one… But at bottom we all (with the exception of Massimo) seem to agree that everything is entailed by the laws of physics.

    I haven’t read the arguments, but I wonder if Massimo is an outlier here because philosopher’s often deal with the idea of conceptual possibilities.

    For instance, it is conceivable that hydrogen and oxygen could form a water molecule and yet water molecules when put together do not constitute a substance which is “wet.” There is no knockdown argument that ‘wetness’ is entailed by H2O. We can imagine otherwise.

    When you take the physics and chemistry into account, however you show why the hypothetical is technically impossible. Water behaves the way it does for a reason. But philosophers work with a lot of different kinds of “possible.”

    Maybe. I don’t know.

    1. That kind of speculative philosophy gets more and more problematic the more we know about the way the universe functions.

      To hypothesize an H2O molecule that isn’t wet at standard pressure and temperature, you’ve got to invent a new physics so radically different from the one that we know that the only thing that’s left is the words you’re using — and those words are being most confusingly used to refer to things that are utterly unlike their common definitions.

      You could somewhat reasonably engage in such speculative fancy in the early days of atomic theory…but today, with the Standard Model? You’d have to invent an entirely new Unstandard Model, one radically different from the one we know and love.

      “If wishes were fishes we’d all cast nets.” Well, okay…but what would it even mean for something to be a wish-fish, and would the “net” you’d use to catch one even vaguely resemble a thread-like substance loosely woven in a regular pattern?

      That sort of thing can make for entertaining fiction and evocative poetry, but it’s certainly not the sort of serious intellectual pursuit the philosophers would have us think it is.



  10. who claims that emergent properties (he used phase transitions in physics) may be sui generis and not at all entailed by physical laws.

    Emergent properties only exist because we have to describe the behavior of large groups of particles in a way that is useful to us.

    It’s a bit like measuring interstellar distances in millimeters. It can be done, but it’s not as useful as higher level measurements such as light years. There is no “transition” from millimeters to light-years, but just a conversion from one scale to another.

    1. On the other hand, the best way I know to think of emergence is to remember that that the new properties aren’t simply scale but also a matter of arrangement. For example, the previously mentioned water. Water is liquid under such and such conditions, which includes a range of ambient pressures. Pressures in turn are perhaps emergent, perhaps resultant (see Bunge, _Emergence and Convergence_ for the difference) properties – but of another system.

  11. We’re not going to agree on anything.

    I know everyone isn’t going to agree with me on this, but it is an obvious result from including philosophy. (Say, “naturalism”.)

    I have learned from the estimable Dr Coyne [maybe you have heard of him] that in these situations we should ask “what is your evidence?” You won’t get an answer out of philosophy. To paraphrase Tim Minchin on alternative medicine, if alternative science worked it would be – science.

    I don’t see how it is meaningful to have such joint discussion. Or at least I fear that it may be hurtful to skepticism and science to pretend these subjects have observable facts in common. But of course I have no evidence for that.

  12. I hate the word design as well, prefer adaptation. I also hate perfected when used in evolution as it suggests an end point.

  13. On the issue of free will, I’m not so sure it’ll b that difficult with Dan Dennett. The way I read him, his disagreement on free will is, to me, a minor semantic. Where may people (including yourself, Sam Harris, and myself) say that free will is an illusion, Dennett appears to only re-define “free will” AS the illusion.

    This is most apparent when he talks about magic. “Real” magic, as in the supernatural kind, doesn’t happen; magicians are performing illusions. When we say magicians do “magic” we mean they perform illusions, and hence the definition of “magic” is the use of illusion.

    On free will, Dennett essentially describes it as the process by which complex prediction algorithms in our minds have variation on outcome due to small changes in inputs or processing. A little different information or processing time might come up with a hugely different selection, like his examples of chess playing algorithms.

    Hence Dennett defines free will AS the chaotic sensitivity of these complex prediction processes in our minds. Free will IS the illusion in the same way that magic IS the illusion.

    I agree with everything Dennett says except for using the term free will to describe it. (I’ve detailed these differences with links to Dennett’s talks on it here: ).

    As with Dawkins’ objection to the word “design”, using terms to mean multiple things just confuses people especially when the difference between the definitions is the controversial aspect, whether we’re talking design, magic, or free will. I’d prefer designoid, illusion, and chaotic choice modelers, unless other different terms can be found.

  14. “Things—-even simple things like the definition of “naturalism”, the subject of our meeting—-aren’t as simple as they seem.” — Jerry Coyne

    This is spoken like a true philosopher. The reason philosophers spend so much time on definitions is that terms like this are often quite complex. So this isn’t surprising.

    (Thanks for the report.)

  15. 1. What SC says about nature being all there is makes sense to me. If you are saying “that what we call supernatural might exist, and could in principle be addressed with the tools of science”, you appear to be saying merely that there might be aspects to nature that we have not discovered yet (not that many of us seriously assign that any plausibility at this point).

    2. I guess I really need to go over to Massimo Pigliucci’s blog again and read what he has to say on emergence. There is no way I can currently make sense of the proposition that emergent properties are not entailed by the laws of physics; where else would their characteristics derive from? “Magic happens here?”

    3. I also guess it is useless to point out again that “free will is incompatible with physicalism and the laws of physics” is not actually the issue, but that “we all completely agree that there is no free will in the way Jerry Coyne defines it, and Jerry Coyne thinks that any other definition of the term invites misunderstanding” would be a more accurate description of your position. (And again, I don’t see the issue because in my native language, voluntary, a very useful term that has no dualist or non-determinist connotations whatsoever, is “freiwillig”.)

  16. Sastra,

    Perhaps it’s time to start a new level of indentation.

    If I understand your position properly — and please correct me if I don’t — it’s that there are lots of phenomenon that are understood to be impossible because they violate various understandings of how the universe works (and which, incidentally, have no supportive evidence in their favor and mounds of contradictory evidence against them).

    A subset of those impossibilities involve mental dualism in one form or another, and it is those, all those, and only those impossibilities that include dualism that you consider deserving of the appellation, “supernatural.”

    Is that correct?

    If so, what’s so special about dualism that it and only it should be considered supernatural, and what’s so (excuse me) mental about the supernatural that it should exclude everything merely mindlessly impossible?

    That’s the part I’m not getting.



    1. Ben Goren #19 wrote:

      Perhaps it’s time to start a new level of indentation.

      Ok. Too much indention = “snaky.” Just hope Jerry doesn’t yell at us.

      … Is that correct?

      Yes, more or less. “Mental dualism” is a broad category. Naturalism is the view that everything mental is fundamentally nonmental.

      If so, what’s so special about dualism that it and only it should be considered supernatural, and what’s so (excuse me) mental about the supernatural that it should exclude everything merely mindlessly impossible?

      Dualism is “special” because that is how we give great cosmic significance to what humans consider important: mind, consciousness, desire, intent, values, morals, emotions, etc. When people talk about a supposed “supernatural” realm, reality, being, force, power, etc. they’re separating mental things from a physical base and projecting our concerns into the universe as a whole. The cosmos cares. Dembski asked “Is reality fundamentally mindful and purposive or mindless and material?” The first option is what ID is supposed to rescue from modern science.

      And what is their enemy? Not necessarily science, they think. “Reductionist materialism.” People who think the mind is what the brain does. Is mind an emergent property of matter or is matter an emergent property of mind? Every supernaturalist will opt for that second one. The rare supernaturalist who rejects it for humans will still keep it around for God.

      There are ambiguous cases on the borderline, sure — but can’t you at least see how MOST proposed supernatural phenomenon (or “woo”) has some vital association with mind/body dualism? If not consciousness, then values or goals which somehow precede, ground, or integrate all of nature.

      Cold Fusion is mindlessly impossible. Homeopathy grants water the ability to “remember” only what we need it to remember, and we imbue this quality into it by shaking a stick in order to impress our intentions. Both pseudoscience. Both impossible. Pick out the woo.

      1. Okay, I think I see where you’re coming from…but I would still contend that it’s a very parochial view. Yes, our tendency to anthropomorphize everything at the drop of a hat lies behind much of our religious instinct…but so does our desire to wield great power with little effort. Who wouldn’t want a magic book of spells that let you mold reality to your liking, and who would really give a damn if the book had a mind of its own? Indeed, most would pick the mindless book over the one that might turn on you if it doesn’t like the tone of your voice.

        And what are the gods but the ultimate expression of such an over-the-top force multiplier?

        It’s not that gods have minds that sets them apart. We all have minds — and, by your own description, the superstitious view is that even that branch blowing in the wind has a mind.

        No, it’s that the gods can do that which we cannot that makes them special.

        We can huff and puff all day long and that branch isn’t going to move, but every time Poseidon sneezes we get a hurricane. If you find just the right rocks and bang them together just the right way, you might get enough of a spark to start a fire in some kindling…but Thor makes thunderbolts that start wildfires just by swinging his hammer in the clouds. Vintners have to toil all year in the fields and then crush and process the grapes and store the juice for years to make wine, but Jesus can turn water into wine just with an askance glance.

        Whether you agree with me or not about the relative importance of dualism (which is merely one specific example of a violation of the laws of nature) as opposed to lumping all the impossible together, I hope you can at least understand why I don’t find your arguments for the supremacy of dualism convincing.



        1. If you take dualism out of a purported supernatural claim and remove all and any mind-related aspect, it’s no longer recognizable as a supernatural claim.

          Consider the example of God. We can imagine a God which is powerless, or at least has little power (animist gods, a deist God, or a God of process theology starts like that.) But a God which has no mind, no consciousness, no awareness, no Good or Evil, no intention, no desires, no goals, no creativity, no Love, no intelligence, no life, no moral nature, no personhood, no joy, no wisdom, no beauty, no justice, no compassion, no concern, no understanding, no virtues, and no values?

          Sounds like a Sophisticated Theologian has gone full atheist. You should never go full atheist. You’re left with Mystery, sure. Maybe Power, too. But “God” goes poof!

          1. That’s all well and good if you’re solely targeting the flavor of supernaturalism that comes in religious flavors, but you’re again leaving out huge swaths of supernaturalism.

            Dowsing rods, lucky coins, salt tossed over the shoulder — none of these are mindful either superficially or essentially.

            I think it a mistrake to exclusively equate supernaturalism with mindful dualistic religion. Religion is just as stupid as any other superstition, and it’s important to make it clear that it’s no more special than the others just because it staples an invisible mind to everything in sight.


            1. Religion is just one form of supernaturalism. Cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood also talks about what he likes to call “secular supernaturalism.” I prefer the term “woo.” And woo also privileges the human mind when it comes to how the universe is set up. Superstitions rest on magical thinking, and magical thinking accepts a view of a supernatural world which responds and reacts like a mind would, valuing what a mind values.

              It doesn’t matter whether the “lucky coin” can think. “Luck” is evaluated mentally, by beings with goals. It’s not an inherent property of objects — not in a materialist world which doesn’t grant mental properties some sort of special status, so that they inhere in non-conscious things. Supernaturalism does that.

              Think about it — magic draws its concepts from how we think. Occult forces unite all objects and events into networks of meaning and intention — and these forces can be manipulated for one’s benefit by rituals involving symbols or special objects which respond to our needs. In magic all things are seen as intimately connected to each other by sympathies and antipathies grounded in a mystical realm of pure meaning which both underpins and surpasses the natural world. A realm of pure meaning is drawing from our experience with mental things.

              Pure Mentality and dualism tracks best with how we instinctively classify “supernatural” apart from “strange” or untestable.” String Theory is strange. But it’s not supernatural. Not until some scientist gives it a mental characteristic — the strings are creative or intentional or they’re manifestations of Love. Now you got woo.

              Here’s a challenge: try to make String Theory sound supernatural without giving it some mental characteristic. Create woo.

              1. Again, I don’t disagree that much of supernaturalism involves dualism.

                It’s just that there’s more to supernaturalism than mere dualism.

                Sure, some people will interpret any example of something supernatural I might toss out as really being something mindfully intentional. But you don’t seriously think that your analysis of the lucky coin being the medium through which your intentions are made real is at all universal, don’t you? Do you really think that nobody at all thinks a lucky coin does whatever it does without any sort of mind at work?

                Here’s a challenge: try to make String Theory sound supernatural without giving it some mental characteristic. Create woo.

                Here’s a counter-challenge.

                Try to make a supernatural god who doesn’t violate causality by “doing more with less.” Give me a supernatural god who’s entirely bound by the laws of physics and I’ll concede at least half the point.


              2. I didn’t say a lucky coin involved a mind at work. I pointed out that “luck” requires mental judgement and value, and “lucky” is a mental quality.

                You didn’t answer my challenge.

                As to your challenge, all I need point out is that the whole point of mind/body dualism is that mind, unlike body (matter), no longer has to adhere to the laws of physics. “Agent causation” is supposed to be different than physical causality (which is why it entrances folks like WLC doing the kalam.) So my basic characteristic encompasses yours. Yours does not necessarily include mine. And when it doesn’t, it will only seem strange, not supernatural.

              3. As to your challenge, all I need point out is that the whole point of mind/body dualism is that mind, unlike body (matter), no longer has to adhere to the laws of physics.

                But, right there, you concede my point: that the supernatural is utterly dependent upon violations of the laws of nature. Dualism is a violation of the laws of nature — I think we agree upon that — and you’re exploding that principle into saying that your dualism / supernaturalism is entirely independent of the laws of nature.

                That’s the whole point I’ve been making, except that I’m pointing out that it’s not only dualism that violates the laws of nature.

                As to your original challenge to me…well, if I am to turn String Theory into woo, I would have to do it by making it violate the laws of nature…at which point it really wouldn’t be String Theory (as currently understood), would it?

                It matters not whether I give String Theory a Chopra-esque intelligence or if I make it something that mindlessly and randomly teleports macro-scale objects from one point on the surface of the globe to another. Whatever I proposed, it would be fiction…which is exactly what the supernatural is.

                Let me try another angle: magic. We agree that all magic is either sleight-of-hand or fiction, right? And would you object to that being so practically by definition?


                So why the objection that the supernatural is somehow some privileged sort of magic that we can’t simply define it out of existence and that it is utterly dependent upon one form of magic?


              4. We are getting snaky again …

                That’s the whole point I’ve been making, except that I’m pointing out that it’s not only dualism that violates the laws of nature.

                You’re still missing my point. If dualism is not involved in a “violation of nature,” then the laws of nature would simply be changed to accommodate the new observation and there would be no reason it wouldn’t be considered naturalism.

                As to your original challenge to me…well, if I am to turn String Theory into woo, I would have to do it by making it violate the laws of nature…at which point it really wouldn’t be String Theory (as currently understood), would it?

                It may or may not be String Theory, but if this is all then nobody would claim the supernatural is vindicated and reductionist materialist naturalism is now dead. Wouldn’t the consistencies under the new conditions be incorporated into the standard naturalistic model?

                It matters not whether I give String Theory a Chopra-esque intelligence or if I make it something that mindlessly and randomly teleports macro-scale objects from one point on the surface of the globe to another.

                Yes it does! Those two scenarios are significantly distinct from one another. The first one is surprising AND supernatural; the second one is only surprising.

                Think about it. QM (even the purported ‘spooky action at a distance’) is only ‘woo’ when somebody connects it to consciousness. Otherwise, they’re arguing only over the science.

                Let me try another angle: magic. We agree that all magic is either sleight-of-hand or fiction, right? And would you object to that being so practically by definition?

                Yes I would object to magic being fiction “by definition.” I have an 18-page file on my computer defining and describing and outlining the technical definition of “magic” as understood in theology, anthropology, philosophy, and New Age pseudoscience. This is only a very small fraction of what is out there. Defining it that way is only okay as slang, a quick and easy shortcut used when talking to people don’t take it seriously.

                But a lot of people DO. Still. They’re going to want the details back in, and they’re not going to accept what amounts to a presuppositional argument. I don’t blame them. I don’t like presupps either.

                That magic is wrong — it is fiction — is a conclusion which was the result of examining evidence and rational thinking and scientific testing. Science killed it. Not semantics.

              5. We are getting snaky again …

                And circular, too — this is probably a good time for closing arguments.

                If dualism is not involved in a “violation of nature,”

                But it is, in very profound ways. We might as well be speculating on whether or not caloric, humors, and the aether are involved in a violation of nature. They are; we know so; and we understand why this is so.

                then the laws of nature would simply be changed to accommodate the new observation and there would be no reason it wouldn’t be considered naturalism.

                …and, right there, you’ve perfectly conceded my point. If dualism didn’t violate the laws of nature, it would be considered a natural phenomenon. It’s because it violates the laws of nature that it’s supernatural.

                All I’m suggesting is that everything else which violates the laws of nature is also supernatural. I’m also offering the observation that if it exists, it’s natural (whether or not we understand it); and, therefore, if it’s not natural, it doesn’t exist (even if it has the appearance / illusion / imaginative fantasy of existing).

                The dualistic mind is but one popular example amongst many of the supernatural.


              6. Argh, no! You MISREAD me!

                I AGREE that dualism is a violation of nature. I was saying that when it is NOT involved — when you have an apparent violation of nature which does not, in any way, involve some purported pure immaterial mentality or mental property — then nobody thinks nature has been “violated.” Nobody thinks we’re dealing with the supernatural. They simply change the descriptive laws.

                If a supernatural phenomenon — one which by definition involves some form of dualism — is proven they’ll also adapt the laws, sure, but they’ll probably note that these new descriptions are describing not nature, but ‘the supernatural.’ They’re confined. Naturalism is falsifiable, like any good science theory. Reality has two “realms.”

                The dualistic mind is but one popular example amongst many of the supernatural.

                “Dualistic mind?” Sure. It’s one example. But my criteria is broader than that. I’m talking about causes, forces, essences, or beings which are irreducibly mental. Consciousness, values, goals, intentions, moral judgements, intelligence, and so forth. Karma was just brought up in the other post — a ‘law of nature’ (a “force”) which ensures that everything will end up fair. Supernatural.

                You cannot name one ‘supernatural’ claim which doesn’t have this feature.

                It’s a defining feature which tracks with how the word is actually used and applied. And it doesn’t get tangled up with non-supernatural cutting-edge research in new areas. Every supernatural event violates an accepted law of nature — but not every violation of an accepted law of nature is ‘supernatural.

  17. Dan and Richard disagreed on the use of the term “design” in evolution. Dan says it’s useful, while Richard doesn’t like its supernatural connotations and prefers to use the term “designoid”, indicating the absence of a teleological force behind biological adaptations. I agree with Richard on this one, though I prefer the simple term “adaptations.”

    What about “solutions?”

  18. Dr. Coyne: I’m a follower of Dennett in re free will, and I’d like to briefly try to explain the compatibility argument in a way I don’t think he ever drove home.

    When you look at what free will is in someone else, as a distinguishable objective and even measurable phenomenon it’s difficult to deny its reality. When phrased properly as that definition it becomes ever more clear that despite the other nuances and phenomenal noise in our own heads about it, that properly understood it applies to ourselves and sour subjectivity as well.

    Our free will, the one we *really* possess, is quite simply our ability to change our *disposition* towards as yet unrealised future events.

    (Measure it! Set up a tent soliciting volunteers …. Outside guy says “inside there is a green and blue button. You can push whichever you choose with no other consequence. Which will you choose?” Writes down choice then gives volunteer card with (unique) number and says: “give this to the guy inside. Thanks and as such we will give you five dollars for pushing the (volunteers chosen color) button. You may enter.” On the inside, guy takes card, writes down the number and says “We will give you ten dollars for pushing the blue button” and opens a panel with the buttons. Writes down which the volunteer pushes and pays them off as per which they push and ushers them out. I would bet a significant number of first chosen green’s *change* their disposition towards the button they intended to push in the near future. Free will, as a an ability to change disposition towards future events is real and measurable).

    All of the other internal confusion is just noise. It really is only what we can characterize as we look at it in others.

    — TWZ

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